The Great Oyster Island
At the time of European colonization of the New York City area in the 17th century, much of the west side of what we call today the New York Bay contained large tidal flats which hosted vast oyster beds, a major source of food for the Lenape people who lived there at the time.
There were several islands which were not completely submerged at high tide.
Three of them (today known as Liberty, Ellis, and Black Tom) were given the name Oyster Islands (oester eilanden) by the settlers of New Netherland, the first European colony in the Mid-Atlantic states.
These oyster beds would remain a major source of food for nearly three centuries.
Landfilling after the start of the 20th century, particularly by Lehigh Valley Railroad and Central Railroad of New Jersey, eventually obliterated the oyster beds, engulfed one island and brought the shoreline much closer to the others.
Bedloe’s “Love” Island
After the surrender of Fort Amsterdam by the Dutch to the British in 1664, the English governor Richard Nicolls granted one of these island’s to Captain Robert Needham.
Needham’s island had a land area of around 15 acres.
On December 23, 1667, Needham sold his island to Isaac Bedlow.
Bedlow’s Island was retained by his estate until 1732 when it was sold for 5 shillings to New York merchants Adolphe Philipse and Henry Lane.
During their ownership, the island was temporarily commandeered by the city of New York to establish a smallpox quarantine station.
Then in 1746, Archibald Kennedy (later 11th Earl of Cassilis) purchased the island from Philipse and Land. Kennedy then build a summer residence on his island.
In 1753, Kennedy described his island as “Love Island” in an advertisement (in which the “Bedlow’s” had become the “Bedloe’s”) as being available for rental:
“To be Let. Bedloe’s Island, alias Love Island, together with the dwelling-house and lighthouse being finely situated for a tavern, where all kinds of garden stuff, poultry, etc., may be easily raised for the shipping outward bound, and from where any quantity of pickled oysters may be transported ; it abounds with English rabbits.”
In 1756, Kennedy again allowed the island to be used as a smallpox quarantine station, and on February 18, 1758, the Corporation of the City of New York bought Love Island from Bedloe for £1,000 for use as a pest house.
Then when the British troops occupied New York Harbor in the lead-up to the American Revolutionary War, the island was to be used for housing for Tory refugees, but on April 2, 1776, the buildings constructed on the island for their use were mysteriously burned to the ground.
After the Revolutionary War, on February 15, 1800, the New York State Legislature ceded the island to the new United States federal government, with the understanding a defensive fort would be constructed there (along with Governor’s Island and Ellis Island).
Construction of a land battery fortress began on the island in 1806 in the shape of an 11-point star and was completed in 1811. The granite fortification followed a star fort layout with 11 prominent bastions.
Following the War of 1812, this star shaped fort was named Fort Wood after Lt. Col Eleazer Derby Wood who was killed in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.
Statue of Liberty
In June of 1871, French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi crossed the Atlantic with letters of introduction signed by French law professor and politician Édouard René de Laboulaye.
These letters aimed at influential Americans discussed the idea for a memorial dedicated to the independence of America, built by a united effort, a work of both France and the United States.
As Bartholdi arrived at New York Harbor, he focused his attention on a small island as the perfect site for his statue. He was struck by the fact that vessels arriving in New York had to sail past it.
Bartholdi was delighted to learn that the island was owned by the United States government.
Thus he wrote in a letter to Laboulaye that Bedloe’s Island was: “land common to all the states.”
As well as meeting many influential New Yorkers on this trip, Bartholdi visited President Ulysses S. Grant, who assured him that it would not be difficult to obtain the site for the statue.
Soon it was agreed that Congress would authorize the acceptance of the statue by the President of the United States, and that the War Department would facilitate construction and presentation.
In July of 1884, the construction of the Statue of Liberty was completed by Bartholdi in France.
The cornerstone was laid on Bedloe’s Island August 5, 1884, and after some funding delays, construction of the pedestal was finished on April 22, 1886.
The statue arrived in New York Harbor on June 17, 1885, on board the French frigate Isère, was stored for eleven months in crates waiting for its pedestal to be finished, and was then reassembled in four months.
On October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty was unveiled by President Grover Cleveland.
The National Park Service (created in 1916) took over operations of the island in two stages: 2 acres in 1933, and the remainder in 1937.
The Fort Wood military installation was not completely removed until 1944.
The name Liberty Island was not made official by Congress until 1956.
Now WE know em